Death Was Nothing to Them
From Epicurus the Sage by William Messner-Loebs and Sam Keith, 1989-91. Image via.
by Catherine Wilson
For the modern reader, the term ‘Epicureanism’ suggests the pursuit of pleasure, especially the pleasures of the palate, and a certain fussy frivolity in the choice of drink and decor. ‘Stoicism,’ by contrast, is generally known to be serious philosophy, to imply an attitude to life that gets us through the hard times of exile, loss, and disgrace, and that promotes an appropriately lofty attitude towards moral obligation. There is some truth in the caricature. The founder of the ancient school, Epicurus (341-270 BCE) is reported to have said that he knew not how to conceive the good, ‘apart from the pleasures of taste, sexual pleasures, the pleasures of sound and the pleasures of beautiful form.’ Here I will enter a plea for Epicureanism as an equally serious –and in many ways more adequate moral—philosophy. First, a sketch of the principal doctrines and later influence of the School.
The position that the rational pursuit of pleasure is what all should aim at was closely related to Epicurus’s teaching on the material universe, the mortality of the soul, and the indifference of the gods to human affairs. Epicurus’s ontology was atomistic. Everything that exists, whether living or non-living, he maintained, is composed of indivisible, indestructible material particles too small to be seen, separated by void. Infinite in number, but possessing only a finite number of shapes, drifting, colliding, and becoming entangled with one another, the atoms congregate into numerous worlds or ‘cosmoi’ separated by vast intercosmic spaces, each with its own forms of celestial objects, plants and animals. The order that we perceive in the motions of the heavenly bodies, the apparent adaptation of living things to their environments, and the persistence of the various species from generation to generation is the effect of time and chance. The motion of the atoms and their ability to cohere is sufficient to introduce novel forms and to eliminate or preserve them. Unstable atomic composites disintegrate; stable systems persist—though only for some finite amount of time–; and some such systems have fallen into patterns of reproducing their own kind. The principle of variation and elimination or persistence applies to entities ranging from entanglements of just a few atoms, to mountains, celestial bodies, human societies, and entire cosmoi.
Destruction and renewal are ongoing: the inexhaustible supply of atoms and their irrepressible motion ensures that the universe will present a succession of new living and non-living forms. No composite form can be permanent. Every existing thing has come to be from dissociated individual atoms and will ultimately be reduced again to them. All phenomena—the weather, the phases of the moon, volcanoes, earthquakes, generation, dreams, illnesses—have physical explanations, even if the smallness of the atoms involved makes it impossible for human beings arrive to arrive at the uniquely correct explanation of a phenomenon when several different ones could account for it.
The Epicurean account of the blindly self-organising, self-developing universe was at odds with the prevailing understanding of the universe as intentionally created by a divinity possessed of wisdom and beneficence, as Platonists and Stoics, the tenacious rivals of the Epicureans throughout history, maintained. ‘[N]ature,’ said Lucretius, the 1st C. BCE Roman poet who presented Epicurus’ s doctrines in a single long poem, On the Nature of Things, ‘is her own mistress and is exempt from the oppression of arrogant despots, accomplishing everything by herself spontaneously and independently and free from the jurisdiction of the gods.’[i] Although Epicurus was thought to have a pious disposition and even went so far as to concede the existence of the gods on the grounds that everyone believed them to exist, he awarded them residence in the inter-cosmic spaces, where they paid no mind to anything but their own affairs. Lucretius took a more radical stance. Religion, he thought, citing Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to placate an angry goddess, was a baleful influence; the priests used it to maintained their social power over weak and fearful minds. The so-called gods were only images that appeared in the dreams and reveries of human beings.
Because there was no divine plan for the universe, and no relationship between the gods if they existed at all and human beings, morality and political society had nothing to do with the gods’ preferences or commands and was invented by human beings themselves as they brought themselves out of a state of solitary wildness and began to come together to live in groups and tribes. Book V of On the Nature of Things describes in, a remarkably anthropologically accurate fashion, the evolution of civilisation, taking off from the chance discovery of molten metals and their malleability into various shapes. Metallurgy brought into being the plow and sickle, hence agriculture, hence slavery and wealth, and also weaponry, hence warfare, dominion, and monarchy. Civilisation, he declares, has brought us roads, buildings, fabrics, paintings and sculpture and enhanced the enjoyment of life. It has also poisoned men’s minds with ambition and greed, evils that arise from ‘not knowing the limits of possession.’ Appalled by conquest and warfare, Lucretius compares the damage early humans could do to one another with their sticks and clubs with that produced by armies, navies, and cavalries equipped with the latest instruments of destruction.
The Epicureans preferred to ‘live apart,’ with members of the School refusing to take part in civic affairs and cultivating instead private friendships based on liking and affinity, rather than advantage or necessity. They would likely have been conscientious objectors if that category had existed. In Epicurus’s ‘garden’ –a treed grove outside the city limits–they dined together, and discussed and wrote philosophy. Within small groups, Epicurus supposed, peaceful co-existence can be maintained by conventions of reciprocity and forbearance; larger political societies require the appointment of magistrates to enforce fair dealing. If the human race had not stumbled on these solutions to the problems of co-existence, it would not have survived. Early human history was indeed an era of pandemonium as tribes and their leaders strove to displace and eliminate their rivals.
Like everything else in nature, laws and conventions in politics and morality are mutable. There are no necessarily eternal moral truths, and all norms and practices can change or be changed as the conditions of human life change. One of the most interesting aspects of Epicurean moral theory is its treatment of relations between the sexes. Epicureanism was the only philosophical school of antiquity that enrolled women as members and that welcomed the hetairai. The Greek word is translated rather prejudicially as ’courtesans,’ but it applied to women who had rejected marriage or who, as foreigners, were ineligible for marriage to Athenian citizens. The hetairai were educated and literate, interesting and companionable, often beautiful dressed and adorned when wives were expected to be modest and veiled., and, unlike Athenian wives, they mixed freely on the grounds of the School with men and entered into liaisons by mutual agreement. These arrangements appeared scandalous to outsiders and they were probably a source of some tension within the School. This is suggested by Lucretius’s memorable discussion of the anguish of sexual jealousy in Book IV of his poem; relationships in communal settings are, one might observe, good examples of unstable entities liable to disintegrate into their component parts. Epicurus did not recommend marriage and children, which he considered vexing, for the philosopher, but Lucretius held a somewhat more favourable attitude, maintaining that long familiarity with a woman of a good disposition could breed love, which led to childbearing, and the renewal of life. In the springtime, he writes, Venus (a concept, not an entity) pours ‘seductive love into the heart of every creature that lives in the seas and mountains and river torrents and bird-haunted thickets and verdant plains, implanting in it the passionate urge to reproduce its kind.” [ii]
Because the ‘soul,’ responsible for warmth, perception, feeling, action, and thought in animals including human beings, is composed like everything else of material atoms, atoms that are especially small and mobile that pervade the limbs and tissues of the body, it is as liable to destruction as any other entity. At death, the soul atoms evaporate into the air ‘like the scent of a perfume or the flavour of a wine.’ This acceptance of the total annihilation of the person underlay the celebrated Epicurean maxim that death is not to be feared since ‘where we are death is not and where death is we are not.’ There is no reason to fear Hell or hope for Heaven, but neither is there any reason to fear annihilation, since one will never face anything like a great emptiness. No one can experience being dead, so it cannot be a painful or unpleasant condition. Even the process of dying is not to be feared, according to Epicurus, since the gradual withdrawal of the soul from the body also diminishes sensation. That there will come a time when I experience nothing should be no more dismaying than the thought that there was a time before my birth when I experienced nothing. Needless to say, this position has been found controversial: it has been pointed out that all processes of departure and even expectations of departure from pleasurable surroundings are painful while they are occurring, and the world, for most people who are not in great mental or physical pain, is a pleasurable place to be.
When it comes to pain and pleasure, the ethical doctrines of the Epicureans are among their most misunderstood. Epicurus thought that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain not only motivated all animals all the time but ought to do so. He was quick to observe, however, that the direct pursuit of pleasure in gluttony, drunkenness, and promiscuity often led to painful experiences and that some painful experiences and deprivations were necessary for long term comfort. A bit of decent bread and cheese, not the luxuries of wine and fish, should satisfy the philosopher, who was skilled in assessing the worthwhileness of objects and actions and could determine the reasons for ‘choice and avoidance’ accordingly.
As sensible as this ethical stance might appear it was contested by the Stoics, whose nature philosophy as well as their ethics was contrary to that of the atomists. To material particles and void, the Stoics opposed their pneuma, a vivifying spirit pervading nature and accounting for life and mentality. To the universe formed by chance and the persistence of stable forms, they opposed a theory of divine creation and benevolent supervision of the universe. Against Epicurus’s insistence on chance, innovation, and free will, they favoured a belief in determinism and the attitude characterised as ‘love of fate.’ Against Epicurus’s treatment of human beings as animals led by prospects of pleasure and pain, they opposed a view of the human being as a privileged being endowed with an innate sense of the morally right, the bonum and honestum and a respect for duty, which, in their view, was typically opposed to pleasure.
In the Christian era, the writings of both Epicurus and Lucretius were largely lost or destroyed. A library of Epicurean writings was covered in ash by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE and has only recently been excavated. Both philosophers were condemned by the Fathers of the Early Church. Lucretius’s suicide in his 40s, allegedly over romantic desperation, was seen as a fitting end for a hedonistic atheist. Christian doctrine taught that all events were willed by God, that suffering was good and pleasure and scientific thinking bad, that moral and immoral behaviour were obedience to divine command, that eternal life had been restored to human being by Christ and that all would receive their just deserts in the life to come. Some writers maintained that Epicureanism was an excuse for libidinous behaviour; others suggested more sympathetically that it was the difficulty of solving the problem of evil in a Christian framework that encouraged people to deny Providence and to become skeptical about the existence of God.
Throughout the medieval period when the Church controlled the University curricula, and as long as philosophy was seen as the handmaiden of theology, Epicurean teachings fared badly. Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things survived in only a few copies. But suppression was incomplete. Lucretius’s was known to a few medieval writers, and Epicurean sayings, some deposited in the Vatican library, were also in circulation. There was even an Epicurean Pope (Leo X) and a form of ‘Christian Epicureanism’ ascribed to Erasmus. Marsilio Ficino, the famous Florentine Neoplatonist philosopher, studied Lucretius intensively before turning against him.
In the mid-17th century this situation of slander and neglect changed dramatically. Pagan authors came into fashion with the invention of the printing press as the beauty and profundity of their thinking became apparent, and their errors could be excused on the grounds that they knew no better. One of the last surviving copies of De Rerum Natura was rediscovered in a monastery library the early 15th century by a travelling manuscript hunter, and it found its was into print in Venice in 1473, making it one the earliest of printed books. The first complete translation into English by a known author was that of the Puritan housewife, Lucy Hutchison, who versified it impressively in the 1650s or mid 1660s; what her motives were is open to speculation but women seem to have appreciated the Venusian imagery of the work and perhaps even with its rebellious attitude to organised religion. Other translations followed, one notable one by the poet Dryden, and today there is a range of prose and verse translations in print along with new commentary and analysis.
The rediscovery of Lucretius’s text and the account of Epicurus given by the biographer Diogenes Laertius stimulated the revival of atomism and the rise of the mechanical philosophy of the 17th century associated with Galileo, Gassendi, Descartes, Boyle, Newton and others. The original arguments for the existence of atoms given by Epicurus and embellished by Lucretius ran something as follows:
Something cannot come from nothing, so something must have been in existence from all eternity.
This something must actually be ‘some things’ since there is variety and change in the universe.
These ‘things’ must be indestructible because everything destructible is, eventually, destroyed,
They cannot have the qualities of colour, scent, or taste, only shape, magnitude, solidity and power of motion. The combination and arrangement of the atoms must give rise to these qualities.
They must be extremely small, smaller than the finest grains of powder, for we see stone steps and rings being worn away over many years from the attrition of atoms.
This theory was found congenial in the so-called period of the Scientific Revolution. For one thing, Epicurus’s insistence that all phenomena had physical explanations fitted well with the new interest in machines and their possible outputs while the invention of the microscope in the early 17th century and its increasing use fitted well with his belief in sub-visible micro-processes. The persistent hope on the part of chemists of being able to transmute base metals into gold and to discover new medicines was supported by Epicurean ontology. If the qualities and properties of substances depended simply on the arrangement of their constituent atoms then breaking down a substance like lead and performing some further operation might make it possible to recombine the atoms into gold. Unfortunately, no such procedures were developed, and by the early 19th century it was believed that substances like gold and lead were themselves composed of indestructible atoms of gold and lead. Today we know that this is not the case and that an array of ‘subatomic’ particles underlie these elements and that transmutation is after all possible, though difficult and expensive.
More troublesome for early modern philosophers was the atheism or social constructionist theism of the Epicureans. Some philosophers sincerely doubted that the universe could emerge from matter in motion without a divinity to plan it and steer the process and indeed to create the first specimens of plants and animals. Others, like Descartes, were confident that self-assembly was possible but needed to set their beliefs in a theological framework to avoid censure and possibly the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy. Descartes tried to distance himself from Epicureanism and positively asserted the existence of God and the incorporeality of the soul, which he tried to prove was a nonmaterial substance. The formation of plants and animals and the existence of sentient and rational creatures became, in the 18th century, the main difficulty for the materialists. Even Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century was baffled by it. Although Lucretian ‘evolutionary’ doctrines were already voiced in France, the problem was not really solved until Darwin proposed a new version of the ‘stability’ theory of the Epicureans. If some simple , primitive being with the power of persisting long enough to replicate itself could have arisen by chance, and if successive generations could vary from the parent generation, then, he supposed, a succession of forms could spontaneously appear that evolved new shapes and physiologies, fitted to their new habitats.
The reception and development of the moral and political theory of the Epicureans is a story on its own. The contrast with Stoicism is especially relevant here. Both ancient schools favoured tranquillity and a peaceful life. The Stoics however had a keen sense of the conflict between duty and pleasure, as Plato had before them. They supposed human beings endowed with a faculty of ‘right reason’ that recognised honourable conduct even when it was opposed to self interest. Theirs was a philosophy well suited to public life where the danger of a fall from power and possible exile was always a threat and reputation was critically important. They taught that one should weather reversals of fortune by reminding oneself that the world was ordered by Providence and that the mind had complete control, not over what happened, but how it perceived and reacted to what happened.
Because the Epicureans did not regard the soul as an incorporeal agency, but as matter pervading the material body, they had no such exaggerated belief in the powers of the mind to dissipate emotional responses as these are felt in the body. Pleasure and pain came to the fore in 19th century Utilitarian philosophy. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, developed Epicureanism into a political programme of maximising the welfare of all. Their political and legislative interests, were to be sure, unEpicurean: the preference of the members of the ancient school was to ‘live apart’ and to avoid the vexations of interaction and debate with hostile persons and so political life. But the relief of human suffering, not by altering personal attitudes and dispositions, as the Stoics would have it, but by altering external laws and conditions was the aim of the many interventions of the Utilitarians and the English and Irish radicals of Victorian times into prison reform, poverty legislation, votes for women and divorce law.
Epicurus refers to the ‘cry of the flesh.’ Whoever is preserved from being hungry, thirsty and cold, he thought, possess the elements of happiness. Even chronic illness is bearable; the most painful of fatal illnesses tend to take their course quickly. Many contributors to happiness, he thought, such as sexual satisfaction, are ‘natural’ but not strictly ‘necessary,’ and some desires are artificially induced and are neither natural nor necessary to satisfy. These presumably included the desires for luxury goods and for high office. Although contemporary capability theorists are inclined to expand the category of the natural and necessary in trying to establish the minimum conditions of a good life, asserting the need for an outlet for creative energies, social support, choice of a marriage partner, and access to culture, among other requisites, Epicurus’s point was that no one deprived of the basics is in a position to enjoy such things.
Compassion has not been a strong motif in Western moral philosophy; the pagan philosophers were perhaps justly seen as elitist and prideful by their critics, and, for the Stoics, not only was everyone responsible for him or herself, whilst being enmeshed in an immutable system of Fate, but pity was an aversive emotion that ought to be repressed. Again, Epicurean philosophy was exceptional. Lucretius’s own rather melancholy, poetic cast of mind seems to have led him to emphasise the compassionate aspects of Epicurean philosophy. He refers to the miseries of warfare, the loss of offspring by animal mothers, the torments of romantic uncertainty, and the awfulness of plague against which medicine is helpless. Materialism is nevertheless an optimistic philosophy: there are no demonic forces operating in the world, and no whimsical or demanding gods requiring to be placated if eternal torments are to be avoided. Death is the condition of not being and experiencing nothing, and if the mind were not material, Lucretius pointed out, mental illnesses would not be curable as physical illnesses are. The ‘swerve’ of the atom that brings novelty into the world, and that was somehow connected with human free will in Epicurus’s mind, was never a well-worked out element of Epicurean philosophy, at least as far as we know. But his vision of a genuinely open future, of human inventiveness, and the constant evolution of forms and customs assuredly rescues his philosophy from all charges of frivolity and irrelevance.
Cover image by NASA.
 The story is well told by Stephan Greenblatt, The Swerve
[i] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), II.1090, tr. Martin Ferguson Smith, Hackett, 2001, p. 63.
[ii] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) I: 1-9; tr. Smith p. 2-3.
About the Author:
Catherine Wilson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of York (UK) and teaches part time at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She writes on history and philosophy of science, also aesthetics, ethics and philosophy of literature. She is the author most recently of Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (paperback 2011) and A Very Short Introduction to Epicureanism (2015), both from Oxford University Press.